"hospitality"

Greg looks back on the 48 days of American Bear

Yesterday we took a walk with my family’s dog Daisy, down a path near my house, visiting a pretty lake. We passed two people, each of whom were walking dogs as well – as we held Daisy back (she’s not very friendly with her own species), I smiled and spoke to the dog owners, “Hi, how are you – sorry, she’s not very friendly –” and was surprised to get no response from them. Not a word, not a smile. I don’t think they were perturbed by the dogs’ relationship. They just didn’t seem very friendly.

I don’t want to analyze each of my interactions with strangers based on their friendliness. We did that for forty-eight days and I don’t think it’s fair to do in every situation. Maybe I have a sympathetic nature. Every time we got brushed off by someone, and as our statistics built to show 45% of people we approached declined to speak with us, it was easy to describe those experiences as unfriendly. Neither Sarah nor I believe that to be the case – we acknowledge that people are busy, people are shy, people are worried they’ll be asked something that makes them uncomfortable (and asking for a stranger to take us in sure made some people uncomfortable). So we learned a lot about tone.

In Atlanta, dozens of people declined to speak with us, and most were extremely polite about it – surprising given the stigma of unfriendly cities. We didn’t find a place to stay, but we agree that Atlanta was one of our most positive days. We recently got an email from a couple in Wells, Nevada, who had read our blog post about Wells and were fairly enraged. They believed we were biased and rude, and their email was full of venom. In fact, it only furthered our interpretation of Wells, where we met plenty of people who were busy or disinterested, but whose tone made their cold shoulder truly chilling.

And our tone with people was probably the most influential factor in our good luck finding a home. We were always smiling, always friendly. When we were stressed or unconfident, we either had an unsuccessful interview, or we were very grateful that someone else’s energy could lift our spirits too. Our experiments with appearance had almost no direct effect – and although we discussed race with most of our hosts, and heard some racist comments, I think our friendly nature had much more to do with our luck than our white skin. And we often considered the discrepancy between the needy who are deserving versus those who are not deserving – some people didn’t help us because we weren’t deserving, as we were clearly not poor or truly homeless. But many people don’t actually help the homeless because they don’t want to fuel bad habits, including panhandling as a career detour. I hope even a homeless person could have the luck we had, as long as they did it with a smile and clear motivation.

I want to feel more surprised. I think I’ll find surprises while we’re editing – as I grow more distant from our experiences, and as I look at different experiences next to each other, I am sure new lessons and perspectives will arise. After a couple days, it felt so natural to be in a stranger’s home, to be in a new bed, or new floor, around new smells.

But the part of a stranger’s home that I found most interesting was their shower. Something about showering is so much more personal even than sleeping in someone else’s home – maybe the fact that you’re naked. But seriously, every time I showered somewhere else, or was even just offered, it was kind of a rush. And very exciting. Some people have amazing showerheads. But I also had a few stretches of up to four days when I didn’t shower, which hasn’t happened since I was a kid. While four days ended up feeling pretty gross, I think it’s an interesting new comfort level for me. And that’s kind of a goofy example in the context of cleanliness-comfort throughout this project: lack of showering, or staying in a messy home, or sleeping on a floor, or in the car, all of these are a lot less clean than how I normally live my life. My house in New Jersey is extremely clean. I am very comfortable walking around barefoot. My room in New York is cleanish, but I always wear my flip-flops. I am not high-maintenance or hoity-toity, so it wasn’t like a lesson, or a release – but I definitely appreciated living in different environments, if only for a night. This is kind of a silly way of getting to the fact that the messy houses were exciting because they opposed what so many said to us: “I would let you stay, but my house is just a mess right now.”

There is definitely a pressure of hospitality, of being a host, of having guests. Fearing that your guests will be judgmental. Or disappointed? It’s a fair pressure. But a little bit sad. And part of why our messy homes were so comfortable – and even exciting. Those hosts were often the most open. The most comfortable with themselves and with us. I’ve generally considered myself an open person, not much to hide. But many of our experiences have inspired me to be more open. We made seemingly close relationships with a number of the people we stayed with, over the course of just a couple hours. We’ve stayed in touch with some; others, we’ll talk to only about the progress of the movie. The definition of “friend” is very nebulous in the context of our film, because we often refer to our hosts as new friends, even some of our shorter interviews as friends. We also stayed with someone who would outright tell us that we are not friends: for him, it’s a process that takes years. I love the idea of calling people friends after just a couple minutes. Connections aren’t something tangible, they are felt. I believe we can feel the connection of friendship almost instantaneously, and I only believe that because of this project. It’s a feeling that has no age barriers either – we often stayed with people who could be our parents, or grandparents, who have children our age. But to have open conversation, to call them by their first names, to eat a meal with them – it makes the feeling of friendship come alive.

I decided about two years ago that I wanted to wake up just before sunrise every day – I had written to a friend that “a sunrise is the most nutritious breakfast,” but the joke inspired me. I felt more energetic and excited when I started my day when the day really started. But it also only lasted for two months. So now, I want to proclaim that I’ll smile at everyone I see, that I’ll engage in conversation with people at the store, on the street, that I’ll be perpetually open and excited about everyone around me – and while it’s nice to have that attitude, I don’t imagine it being quite as consistent as all that. But more outgoing, more invested and interested in the stories behind the faces around me, those are attitudes that can always be “more,” that I’ve always had, but that I have now in a brand new way, in a directly inspired way.

And when I introduce myself to new people, I have a feeling that this summer will be one of the first things I talk about. It was the most exciting and dynamic experience of my life. Inside and out – personal growth often through public experiences. An adventure of discovery – maybe rediscovery – of broad ideas I had about Americans. Rediscovery because I had some sort of general open optimism and faith in humanity that this project created a solid foundation for. Discovery because I explored the country and a random assortment of its people. And people sure are complex: we’d hear contradictions as people invited us in and later described how much crime there is going around, how they have to fear for their space. Or people who would be incredibly positive about their town, their openness, and then be taken aback when we said we were relying on strangers for a place to stay. We heard a lot of opinions that I don’t agree with: in conversations of politics, or religion, or tolerance, or diversity. But I don’t agree with them in a personal way, and I can appreciate individuals as a bittersweet mixture of positive and negative, respectable and distasteful. I think this summer helped me encounter some of that for myself. Sarah and I had arguments; I rediscovered some of the darker parts of my personality, and regretted some of my words and actions. Halfway through the trip, I had a brief breakdown: frustrated at Sarah, frustrated at the camera, the pressure of filming our experiences, the disappointment of being behind a camera rather than experiencing something firsthand, and above all, frustrated at how this film might portray me. What if I come across as a jerk? What if I’m captured being rude or short with Sarah? What if I’m the cautious, lame so-called “adventurer,” paling in comparison to Sarah’s energy? Strange to be self-conscious while hoping to meet people who are open, who will welcome a camera into their home without warning. Strange to doubt my good nature and personality because a camera is around. But maybe it also made me more sympathetic to the people who decline to be on camera. It’s another contradiction.

This is the first sizeable documentary I’ve ever made. In one of my classes last year, we discussed the potential impossibility of “nonfiction filmmaking.” Documentaries are supposed to present reality, but there’s really no such thing: in an abstract way, nothing is reality but our own minds and our own interpretation of direct experiences. In a more concrete way, there’s no nonfiction in film because people are generally conscious of the camera, conscious of the future audience – and people are usually conscious of what is considered taboo. The racism we encountered was for the most part tangential, mentioned briefly, revised later in the conversation. Everyone wants themselves portrayed positively – everyone wants to be liked. Many people who declined to interview with us probably had this subconscious motivation. Sarah and I discussed our fear of ending up in a house of domestic violence – but everyone knows domestic violence is wrong, and I don’t think we would have ever been invited into such a home, for fear of it being seen. Many people took us in and believed it was simply “the right thing to do.” I bet there are just as many people who think it was the right thing to do, but still said no. We often defy our own morals, and we often don’t treat each other as we’d like to be treated. Our footage captures many people telling personal stories, personal opinions, engaging in personal activities – but where do some of those things lie on the scale of white lies? That goes for the conversations Sarah and I had on camera as well.

And yet one of the most exciting parts about this film, exciting from the planning stages, and most exciting while it was actually happening, is the freedom. Another contradiction, as it was very stressful to be concerned with filming everything, but this is a film without walls. A film in which the camera and the person behind the camera are main characters. A film around the country, inside homes, inside heads, inside beds. The film fueled the adventure, and the adventure fueled the film. Someday, my memories of this summer will be warped into images from the film and stories created by the film, by putting different experiences in conversation with each other. Another way film extends reality. Maybe the most important part is the feeling, just like the way we trust each other and the way we experience friendship hinges on a feeling – I know that this project, this summer, this movie, this adventure, feels pretty damn good.

American Bear visits Lexington, North Carolina

Lexington doesn’t feel old. But it is.

It felt like a place that had recent become a lot slower than it used to be. It was sort of still sweating after a race. And maybe it didn’t win.

Everyone was friendly. Super friendly. I think I beginning to accept that as a normal thing for the places we visit in the South. Finding a home is more difficult, but finding a friendly smile takes only a few seconds. I think about the morning after our night – we stopped at IHOP at 7am and after eating (we had the most friendly waitress since Julie in Bonner’s Ferry) I held the door open for a family coming in. They all, one at a time, turned to me, smiled and said “Good morning, thank you so much.”

But rewind.

We started downtown after an interview with the executive director of the homeless shelter, Gayle. Gayle was super friendly and super empathetic. She had made taking care of people her biggest responsibility, possibly her biggest joy.

Everyone in town was friendly but most had fallen on hard times. We talked to a man who had taken in a friends young daughter to lessen their economic struggle; we talked to a woman who believed that no one else could take care of her, that it was her responsibility to take of herself and no one else; we met a man who talked openly about his sadness at work in a deli rather than making furniture, what he was trained to and enjoyed doing. Everyone seemed to be helping each other.

The first few people declined an interview – but nicely, or at the least not rudely.

We stopped at a country store – one that had been in town for almost 100 years. The local favorite was cheese pimento salad. As we interviewed the manager, then the owner, everyone who came in was buying it. It was bright orange and kind of scary looking, but my curiosity was spiked. So we bought some.

My thoughts: Bleck. And my stomach complained for the rest of the night.

I don’t want to insult a local favorite, but it was just not my style. It was a mushy sort of paste made from mayonnaise, American cheese, sugar and pimentos. A sort of egg salad made of American cheese, but sweet. Thought: If egg salad and jello salad had offspring. Plus cheese.

No one in the store could help us so we decided that we would stop at the Japanese restaurant (A Japanese restaurant? Here?) before heading back to the homeless shelter to chat with a few residents.

That’s where we met Dan, Jimmy and Doug. We walked into the bar and the red walls were covered in a patchwork of paintings. The Shins were playing.

We chatted with the guys for a bit and then Doug – in a half round about way – invited us to stay with him for the night.

Doug was reading a book about zombies after we returned from the homeless shelter. He talked a little bit about racing – citing his home in Milwaukee as responsible. He talked to Greg and I about shows he’d seen.

We talked about performance art and Karen Finley and we contemplated buying some art. The artist, Stewart Knight came by later – check out his work here on Myspace.

It was a very pleasant and entertaining evening. In someways it felt almost weird to be hanging out with people my own age (older, I suppose, but…) again.

That night, we did an interview with Doug. Who told us that he didn’t like facebook because it created false friendships and he described the forming of friendships as a lengthy process. When I asked him to tell us part of his story he explained that we hadn’t earned it yet, that it would be unfair to the people he calls friends, the people who spent the time earning those stories, if he shared with us, and with an audience.

It’s tough for me to explain Doug. Because I think in many ways he was my opposite. He understands that he is guarded and he uses that word – but for him its positive. I am open with everyone, and he is closed. Not rude, or harsh; not the regular connation of those words. He was friendly, just private.

When we asked him why he took us in, it was sort of a mixed thing. He thought of himself last when he went through his list, realizing all of his friends were working super late, had children or no space. He seemed to think of himself as a last resort, and he wasn’t really hesitant, just logical. He said, “I couldn’t lie. I had so much space, “ also, “It was to weird to be bad.” We often wonder if people are making up excuses, or suggesting that in order to carefully avoid us as strangers.

He believed that life experience creates suspicion. That we are born trusting, as children we want to be everyone’s friend. But that experience teaches us how to distrust.

American Bear Visits Atlanta!

Atlanta, Georgia - Is Southern Hospitality really a Myth?
We didnt find a home in Atlanta. I'll tell you that right now.

But we did have an amazing day. We met so many fascinating people.

It was a fast approach day. That means once we get someone to consent to an interview we tell them what we are doing and ask them if they can help us. Then if they are friendly and up for it we follow up by asking all the usual questions.

Everyone had a pretty cynical understanding of trust - we met only a few who seemed to think the world was going to be okay. Jim, a stranger who invited us to see his show at a "creepy David Lynch, Rob zombie bar" with "cheap, strong drinks" and probably would have offered us his floor if he wasn't crashing with a friend himself, said "When you can trust someone, that's when you are truly alive, when you can trust the world. When you can't, you start dying."

"Is the rest of the country trusting?"

"No, not really."

"So do you think we're all dying?"

"A little bit. A little bit."

He said the Southern Hospitality was just a nice way of saying back handed. "Where I come from we shoot people between the eyes, in Atlanta, in the south, they shoot em in the back."

Another man suggested that maybe the hospitality becomes innate. That kindness is habitual even when you don't like somebody. So that makes it seem like a facade, but its not.

But everyone agreed that people in the south are somehow different. I don't know that I felt that really - maybe in the thank yous I got from holding open the door for someone or in the courtesy with which people declined an interview. But that didnt feel all that different from Ohio, except for the drawl.

We met so many friendly people - Atlanta is a beautiful city and I never felt put out, I was never treated rudely - but we ended up without a home.

American Bear visits Tupelo, Missippi

Tupelo, Mississippi - Our first lesson in Southern Hospitality.


We've been arriving late every day of our journey - late meaning no earlier than 4pm. With the time changes working against us, the five hour drives and the necessity of experiencing the occasional tourist oriented peach farm, waffle house or panoramic view 4 has become our new earliest start time.


So we arrived in Tupelo at 4 - We had to television interviews scheduled. Our first, with Julie, happened just after we parked the car. As she was tailing us in her car (lucky her, air conditioning would have been amazing), we ran into our first strangers. Brock and Scott. And of course Scott's sweet dog, Belle.


They said yes the second they heard the question and Scott got really excited about having an amazing interview later that night with his roommate Eric, his friend who is a poet by nature, not trade, and a few other friends. And so did we.


The guys mentioned southern hospitality without so much as a hint. "Its just another way of living, " they explained to us, "People here are just raised better."


After we asked our big question, Scott jumped at the opportunity to walk us to his house just a few blocks away from downtown. So we all trotted down there. On the way Scott asked "You guys are clean right?" We nodded, no drugs here. "I am a recovering addict, so I always ask, just to be safe." Brock nodded, "Me too." It was amazing that they were so open and so clear about what was allowed in their home.


When we got back to the house Jennifer was sitting on the couch. Scott said teasingly, "She's a Yankee too, you guys ought to get along." Jennifer was from Wisconsin. It's amazing for me to be able to connect to so many people on the basis of place. Just knowing where someone is from is an easy way to form a connection. And perhaps I feel more that way because hardly anyone knows where I am from, but there is something really cool about being able to say "Yeah! I've been there." or "Yeah, I drove through there on my way across the state." So Jennifer and I bonded over Wisconsin.


Then we had to go to our other interview. Our interviewer, Chad, had a full time job at the local Baptist news station and a part time job for the company that he was making our piece for. He was super friendly, energetic and excitable. He didnt fail to remind us that we were in the bible belt, that people might not take so kindly to the idea of us sharing a bed.


We went back to Scotts, ready for whatever they had planned. We ordered pizza, talked more, watched a movie. Scott kept calling me "darlin" and we talked about the southern drawl. Brock and Scott both agreed that the people on TV never get it right.


The evening interview was amazing as promised - even when it was interrupted by some very drunk friends doing impressions of a Mississppi stereotype. Both Chad the interviewer, Scott our host and his friend Nick with a jiggle in his shoes seemed to think that the rest of the world thought that everyone in Mississippi was a shoeless hillbilly or hick. Greg and I laughed at that. Perhaps we were fortunate to miss that somewhere along the line, but it sure was amazing to see the impression. Especially for me because Nick took his shoes off behind my chair as I was filming and came out with his pants rolled up.


Scott kept referring to himself as country (adjective not noun) and when Greg asked what that meant to him, he hesitated. Someone offered up, "hick" and he didn't like that much. He said, "maybe its slower." In my understanding, being country just means your lifestyle is different, you were raised a little bit differently than the rest of the world (but aren't we all?) - maybe its the roots of Southern Hospitality, a sort of pride in your culture.


Brock seemed to get a little frustrated at the way the interview shifted into mayhem. And yes, I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to explore more of those ideas, but I don't think I've seen Greg laugh so hard during our entire trip.


Brock went to bed early, he was starting his new job at 6am. Scott fell asleep on the couch and Eric, Greg and I stayed up watching a movie.


It was a wonderful night. Totally American - and totally a lesson.


As Scott tiptoed off to bed a little later, he turned to me "G'night Darlin'".

American Bear in Oklahoma

Albion and Talihina Ohklahoma

It’s strange writing this so long after it happened. And with a mindset so different from only a few days ago.

I remember that I wanted to note that our day in Oklahoma was a day of peaches. We ate four peaches that we bought in Texas but didn’t try until we had pulled into the parking lot of a milkshake place in Oklahoma. Peaches are by far my favorite fruit and these peaches were ripe and perfect. I think I’ve converted Greg – he wants peaches everywhere we stop now.

Then, in a small country store in Albion (the only business in town, up a hill and attached to this couples house) was a collection of peach scented everything: soap, shampoo, lotion. In the bathroom: peach hand soap. In Pam’s Hateful Hussy Diner in Talihina, peach hand soap. I don’t really know what this means or how it relates to our day there, but it made me excited and it was a recurring theme. Later, at the grocery store, peach nehi soda – I bought one, remember my dad’s stories about nehi. It tasted like each jello , the kind we used to make when I was little. The kind that I still make.

As hinted, we started in Albion, the tiniest town on our itinerary. Population: 146. The main strip of the town was deserted, and when I say main strip I mean the few scattered houses and boarded up businesses. We knew we would try the post office but we thought we’d start at the Bent Can – the country store. When we arrived there was a man buying some canned fruit. We waited for him to purchase his items and then started talking to the owner – who was originally from Denver.

We had chosen a camera-less approach for the day, so there was no asking whether or not she was up for an interview. But we asked the same questions. She was friendly, if a little twitchy. She had moved here to escape her relatives, something she was very animated about. She loved Denver and she would much rather be there than Albion if it weren’t for her family. And all I could think about was how much I missed mine.

We talked to with her and her husband, Eli for over an hour. And then we told them what we were doing. And she froze up. She said, Sorry. No space.” She asked if we had a tent, then Eli said we shouldn’t sleep in a tent because we might get eaten up by chiggers. In high school I had a history professor who had chigger eggs laid in his arm, leaving scars that I never wanted to see on my own arm. I cringed and then told Greg what they were.

As we were leaving she said, “Sorry I can’t. Like I said, we have company.” Greg and I looked at each other and then went to the post office. Which was closed. And that was all we could do in Albion short of knocking on doors. Which would have been a difficult thing there, because I would have wanted to avoid the homes with chipboard for windows – and that doesn’t seem quite fair.

So we made our way to Talihina. 9 miles away.

Before we got far we saw a couple of young Mormon men strapping their bikes to a car on their way home. I stopped to chat. They were friendly and talkative and had good stories to tell. In a sense they basically do what we do every day – except they do knock on doors (though they have time to knock on everyone) and they have more of a mission than we do.

We went to the grocery store – most everyone was willing to strike up a conversation, but we couldn’t find anyone to take us home. Though we gave out a few cards.

Then we stumbled into Pam’s Diner – full name: Pam’s Hateful Hussy Diner.

We just wanted to fill our water bottles but got nabbed by the pie. We had a slicof coconut meringue. It wasn’t made in house and it wasn’t anything amazing. We told our waitress what we were up to. She took our card and about five minutes a smiling face arrived at our table, “You can stay with me. It’s just me and my two girls, but I don’t mind havin ya, “ a cheerful voice said. I turned to see Amber smiling at us. She grinned as we said, “Really? That would be great!” and then she said be right back and disappeared. As we waited (we had finished out pie), Amber’s mother, Pam (THE Pam) came and chatted with us. She did a full background check, not quite so subtly as checks we’ve had in the past, very upfront and direct with her questions. We told her what we were up to. “Well we don’t got much, but what we have we share,” said Pam about the town, herself, her daughter. We told her we’d be very grateful for just a floor – we’re low maintenance after all. “Well, we’ll work
something out, “ she said before disappearing herself.

We sat there confused. It seemed like Pam didn’t want us staying with Amber. We had no idea what was going on. We had finished out pie. Should we order more food? Should we leave?

Eventually Amber returned to us. “My mom says she’ll put ya’ll up in a motel.” We
frowned.

Somehow it became clear that we wanted to stay with Amber. And somehow her mother became okay with that.

And then we got to meet Laney and Alyssa – ages 6 and 9. Very friendly girls with very different personalities and very different appearances.
We stuck around to eat dinner and talk to Amber’s friend Ron who offered to take us parasailing.

That night we had a very long conversation with Amber who spoke openly about her past and her future. She discussed her previous addiction to drugs and her struggle to get over it, her relationship to god, her mother and her girls. She cried when she told us how bad she felt and how much she loved her family; she showed us some of her her poetry; and she and I played with bendaroos as we talked (I called them wiki stix – one of my favorite toys when I was little) . We talked with the girls a bit too – they showed me some tricks with the bendaroos and kept asking Amber to do the “glow stick trick”.

So she did. We went into her bedroom and she brought four glow sticks with her – green, pink, blue and yellow. She poked holes with a push pin in four places on the top of each one and she and I shook the neon liquid all over the place. Like Pollock. Like wild children. Then Greg and the girls came in and we turned off the lights. And the whole room glowed. Colorful stars made three dimensional shapes. The kids rolled in it, then they stood out. It was spectacular. And kind of smelly.
Amber was an amazing host. She slept on the couch so we could share a bed. But she didn’t let us know she was doing it until it was too late. She fed us snacks. She took us to breakfast in the morning.

Amber didn’t talk to us before she said yes. She didn’t worry that it was just her and two young girls. She trusted automatically. And that was amazing.
We said our goodbyes, the thank you’s and Amber’s kind words – “thanks for reminding me that its okay to trust people, “ a bendaroo version of Alyssa for our dashboard and hugs all around. As we were walking away Amber stopped us, “Drive safely,” she said, and then, “If you need anything I have a friend who owns a garage.” We smiled and walked on.

After the car accident, I called her (she had actually called me first, just to check in), I told her we’d been in an accident and she said, “I am glad you are okay , “ and then, “I don’t know why but I had a feeling about ya’ll.”
The accident feels eerie to me. Because of Amber’s feeling, because it happened in Bear, in the center of Bear, exactly where mapquest said Bear was. Because I have no idea how it happened – a mistake, a simple mistake, a mistake that I would not make. And here we are. A few days in Hot Springs and driving our U-Haul across the country.

Stories about our rescue-ers Tom and Becky to follow.

Days 14 and 15: Pierre, SD; The Badlands; Mt Rushmore; Lead South Dakota

Pierre was interesting mostly because of the way it began. I don't mean that the beginning was the most interesting part, but rather that the beginning created the adventure of the day in a larger way than most of our beginnings.

We started at the Capital Journal - the newspaper for the area - to do an interview with David, a young reporter who majored in Poli-Sci at Grinnell. David, unlike the previous people who have spoken to us, asked if he could follow us on our journey for a bit. So we set out with three instead of two.

We also started late. Maybe around 6:30pm. Maybe 7. Because the interview took a while. In Pierre, just on the line for Mountain Time, this looks like early afternoon, not evening.

The first local we found said yes. Instantly and sweetly - she joked about having us help her make bagels at five in the morning and was shocked when we enthusiastically said we would love to do that. We gave her our card and decided to do more interviews while she cleaned up her coffee shop.

BUT about an hour later, after a lot of long conversations with nonlocals and locals alike - conversation that did not include asking for a place to stay - she canceled on us. She said she didnt realize it was so late in the evening, that her husband had a baseball game until very late. When I assured her late was fine - we had many things to occupy our time, she insisted that it wouldnt work out. I think perhaps the fear hit her late, but that meant that it was almost 8:30pm and we were now without a home for the evening.

We asked a few more people - kept running into out-of-towners. We went to a bar where no one greeted us, and the own her said "no fucking way" to an interview. We went to an Italian restaurant: talked to the wait-staff and the chefs. They were super nice but coulnt help. We asked a woman as she was sitting down to her table. She sent us to another restaurant. We went. We spoke to maybe 5 people there, including a man who suspected us of trying to manipulate him through editing into saying horrible things that he didnt want to say. I'd say generally, people were very friendly, but many people were made incredibly nervous by the presence of the camera. It wasnt our request, premise or idea that got to them. It was the camera. And everyone said it would have the opposite affect...

This entire time David was following us. For nearly 6 hours he hung about diligently and waited for us to find our hosts for the evening. But that moment never really came for him.

Rewind. On our drive to Piere Greg and I stopped to get pie. Pie is probably my favorite food. And I have made it a quest of mine to try pie in ever state we visit - the ultimate goal being of course to eat the best pie in the country. I am mostly a fan of peach and berry pies, but the occasionally pumpkin, banana cream or coconut cream sometimes finds itself in front of me. So at this little restaurant I had homemade banana cream pie. It was not good pie. It was alright pie - it was very banana-y and the coffee was onlce 5 cents. But the woman who worked as a hostess was INCREDIBLY nice. She was curious about our project and when we explained it to her she gave us some phone numbers for people she would almost definitely help us.

As we pull on the highway Greg says, "you didnt get her name did you?"

Fast Forward: back to our second restaurant - we have just left the parking lot after the strange paranoid (and also probably drunk) man and Greg and I decide to call these numbers. David says we can be his fall back plan, but he'd need to stay objective for his article, so we call. Calling people is a new thing for us - even when people we stay with suggest someone, we generally refuse to find them. Mostly because it feels like cheating and because it feels better to meet someone in person. But we call. And this is how the conversation goes: "Hi Guy. My name is Sarah, I am making a documentary and I was told you were a good person to ask for help. The woman who told me works at Al's Oasis, she uh, she took a teaching class with you, and she buys organic millet from you for her goats. Funny thing is, we never exchanged names...so. Yeah. Yeah. .....Its about relying on the kindness of strangers for a home each night...... Yeah? Really? That would be great.... Fishing? This late?.... Yeah. Sounds good. Twenty minutes?......Alright, Thank you so much!"
Guy, and his son Jack met us at the Wal-Mart parking lot and took us home. I think David was a little disappointed.

We had an amazing night. We stayed up till 2AM talking with Guy about everything from our first date to dinosaur bones, to the things we are supposed to talk about like culture and fear and trust, to the Spanish treasure his father is so adamant about finding. He showed us his sunglasses that record secret HD video. Guy is a sort of back country Renaissance man - he runs a couple of small casinos, a farm, and a few properties. He is an avid fisher and hunter (the walls of his home decorated elegantly with mounted trophies), a family man, a hopeless romantic, a collector of dinosaur bones - and he isnt that much older than us.
We woke up first in the morning, only three hours after we went to sleep - had to get the oil changed in the car - so we left without really getting to say goodbye, but made sure his thank you note and stuffed bear were placed in plain sight on the kitchen counter.

I tripped on his cowboy boots when we walked out the door.

Pierre was not the most hospitable town. Not unfriendly but definitely guarded. I never worry that we wont find a place to stay. But sometimes I worry about the movie. It's interesting the way that experiencing what is happening and experiencing what is happening sometimes come into conflict. And how some of the best moments never make it onto film.

So the beginning - our late start, our third person - created the end.

In Pierre we learned exactly how circumstantial everything is. By chance, we met mostly nonlocals. By chance, we met people who were afraid of the camera. I have never been more grateful for a fall back plan. Because our fall back turned out to be an amazing night.



Day 15 is our sort of day off. We knew we had a long drive ahead of us. And tons of National Parks to drive through, so we made a deal: If we got to our destination any later than 8 we would foot the bill to stay in a cheap motel for the night. We left Pierre late - almost 11am - after fixing the car, making copies at the public library, buying groceries. We drove for nearly 9 hours. Because we visited some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

We saw Mt. Rushmore - Greg jumping as high as he could to line his head up with Washington's.

We visited the Bad Lands - Greg found it incredibly peaceful, for some reason it completely destroyed my understanding for proportion, I could never tell how big the shapes I was looking at were.

We visited the Black Hills - Our first glimpse of a pine forest since our journey began.

We visited a town called Scenic and spoke to a wonderful woman named Kim. Her story made Greg nearly cry while he was shooting. She was a remarkable lady - a bison rancher who operated a second hand shop and was very open about her lack of trust and where it came from. She told us her whole story. You'll have to see the movie to hear it.

That night, we pulled into a tiny motel, and it was strange, it felt like one of the best shooting days we'd had. Our camera was full, and we were tired.

There is so much to see in United States. So many different people, whose lives are more complex than I could ever imagine or create. I think a lot about this from a fiction perspective as we go - how these people are so real, why they are so real. And even in the superficial ways that we understand people in narrative film - through small actions, hobbies, details - the people we meet are real even in those superficial details.

And the landscape is amazing.

(pictures soon, I promise. Also - Another blog post about last night)

Day 11: Grinnell, Iowa

Downtown Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

En route to the Mazo Beach three days ago.

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On the floor in Julia's apartment, just two nights ago in Decorah, Iowa.

We interviewed two scholars at Grinnell College. Dr. Kesho Scott had a wonderful conversation with us about her work in “unlearning racism” and what it means to be American, and Dr. Lakesia Johnson discussed gender roles and race relations – both conversations energized us about the overarching themes of our project, and gave us inspiration for the conversations we could be having with our strangers, pushing at nebulous terms like “diversity” and digging deeper into the trust and fear within the American psyche.

So far, we’ve been working with our “camera” approach – bringing the camera along as we explore town and meet people, providing the opportunity to speak directly to people as they see the camera and we ask if we can do a quick interview with them – although these initial conversations are often 20-25 minutes now. We love this approach. It’s easy, in a way – having the camera not only provides more footage for our film, but also legitimizes our project and tends to make people more comfortable (although there are certainly cases where people shy away from the camera or refuse an interview).

To mix it up, we chose to do a “camera-less” approach today. It’s much more difficult to speak to people out of the blue, to start with small talk while knowing that we’re hoping to develop the brief conversation into our big question. And when I say difficult, I mean it’s really hard for me, whereas Sarah has no trouble starting a conversation with anyone – but for both of us, popping the question is a challenge. We chose to make this an indirect approach as well, as most of our interviews with the camera are, in which we tell people about what we’re doing but refrain from directly asking if we can stay with them. In most cases, people offer or back away right when we describe the project.

We met about ten people in Grinnell as we explored the community, and everyone was very friendly. We got two offers, but each offer was also throwing a party and noted that we might want more rest somewhere else. So we continued exploring, and had a couple more hesitant and confusing offers for later on – but our plans fell into place when Sam, who we had met earlier at Yumi’s Bakery, called us and said that his neighbor Bob could put us up in his camper behind the house. We always ask people if they know anyone who could put us up, and this is the first time a reference has actually come through – feeling a little nervous and certainly excited, we set off to meet the complete stranger who had already agreed to put us up.

Bob’s wife Rachel opened the door with a very welcoming smile, and our nerves immediately subsided. We had dinner with Bob, Rachel, and their 7-year-old son Davis, and later got a driving tour of the Grinnell campus and a trip to Dari Barn, sort of a local Dairy Queen with massive tractors nextdoor that the kids love to climb on. We had a fantastic conversation with Rachel about the decision to let us in based on just a recommendation. This was also one of our few nights with hosts who weren’t overtly Christian, which developed some different views on why kindness from strangers is a virtue even without religious affiliation.

Sarah and I spent the night in the camper, waking up occasionally to the thunderstorms rumbling around us – the storms keep chasing us, but at least they’re mostly at night. We’re now transferring our footage in their kitchen, anticipating Rachel’s French toast, and snacking on the best pastries from the best bakeries in town.

Every day is giving Sarah more reason to want to move to Iowa.

American Bear, Day Two: Avoca, NY

We're taking advantage of free internet at a Krispy Kreme in Erie, PA, on our way to Ashtabula, OH -- okay, we took advantage of the donuts too. We're looking forward to our third night, this time on Lake Erie.


Yesterday began with eggs and toast with Joe, and then we were off. With only a 2 1/2-hour drive to Avoca, we were able to take our time a little bit, visiting the Corning Museum of Glass, the world's largest glass museum. We didn't actually go in, but they had excellent bathrooms, and Sarah tried to tickle me a lot. In other words, it was like a break before getting back to work in Avoca.


Avoca technically has a higher population than Roscoe, but it sure felt smaller. Maybe it was the strictly logical arrangement of the town: the two-block downtown, with exactly 2 stores and 2 restaurants, is exactly in the center of the small grid of roads with houses. The house we ended up staying in was built in 1902, and most of the buildings look just as old, with signage reminiscent of the 1950s. A cute, slow-motion town.


We started in the Avoca Cafe, where one older resident was enjoying his lunch, and the waitress was always smiling. We spoke to the head of the kitchen, Robert, and ended up with a piece of carrot cake (their recommended dessert) and chicken cordon bleu casserole -- for free. For whatever reason, our out-of-town charm and interest in their town won them over. It would have been especially great if I ate meat -- but Sarah enjoyed some bites of the casserole before we gave it to our eventual hosts.


We soon ran into Randy on the street while he was walking Bobo, a German shepherd/beagle mix. Randy is a veteran of the Vietnam War who turned down a Purple Heart medal, and although he seemed nervous at first, he welcomed being on camera and quickly offered up his house for the night, mentioning that he and his wife had two extra bedrooms. But it was only 1:30, so we decided to continue exploring before we joined Randy and his wife Patti at their home. We would actually see Randy again before that, when he walked down the street with Dickens, their larger dog, while we ate some snacks in a gazebo in the small town park.


We spoke with some young people hanging out on their front porch -- with a "No Trespassing" sign complemented by a "Welcome" decoration next to the door. Two had dropped out of high school, and another had graduated and continued to hang around as one of the few people who claimed to love Avoca. We heard a lot of small-town drama, and saw many more teenagers walking around in groups, smoking, and otherwise enjoying the day. Kind of a strange energy in a town whose two churches were advertised from the highway.


We drove out of town and down County Road 415, until we glimpsed wind turbines over a hill -- Sarah and I have been fairly obsessed with the visual elegance of wind turbines since we drove by a wind farm in Kansas last summer. We turned off 415 and drove past several farms, chasing the turbines. As if by destiny, we found ourselves on an unmarked dirt road that led us right to the turbines themselves. There were three right there, and we counted 39 more on the hills in a several mile radius, which we could only see from the top of our hill, way up with the turbines. So huge, so graceful. 


We headed back to Avoca and straight to Randy and Patti's house. We had a fascinating evening with them -- Patti has been married eight times, and two of those are to Randy. Their house had its own energy, as Patti told us about the three spirits that live there -- a woman and a dog with good intentions, and an evil man who pushed her onto a piano, requiring stitches near her eye. We saw hundreds of pictures of the house in which strange orbs appear, and even had Patti's friend Judy e-mail us pictures of the spirit woman, complete with red lipstick. Patti says they're most active between 10pm and 3am, and maybe someday we'll come back to hunt the spirits with our camera.


We bought a pizza and hot wings from the Avoca Pizzeria and shared it with Randy and Patti. They told us about their history, all those marriages, Randy's time in Vietnam and his brother who served with him and passed away just a month ago. Randy and Patti are both born-again Christians, which has made the kindness of strangers an ideal they hold high, with many charitable donations as well as other experiences taking people in for the night. Christian images and phrases were all over the house, as plentiful as the images and figures of Maine and lighthouses, one of Patti's favorite things. We had our own bedroom, complete with brand new pillows that Patti was excited for us to break in.


This morning, Patti made eggs and toast (quickly becoming the most common breakfast in America), and I howled with Randy, Patti, Bobo, and Dickens in a beautiful chorus of dog noises. We didn't say goodbye, but simply farewell, and see you later.


Our donuts are long finished, and I think we're going to get some lunch before getting back on the highway for about an hour to Ashtabula. We can't wait to see how our adventures continue to surprise us.